Is religion the death of funny?
God ain’t funny. Neither are his fans. This is a tad on the peculiar side, isn’t it? Almighty creator of the cosmos, the alpha and omega, perfect in all ways, but can’t get a giggle. There are no puns in the Bible, no limericks in the Qur’an. There are no knock-knock jokes in the Bhagavad Gītā’s 700 verses, even though doors are at least as old.
God might have made for some ironic humor, of course. When Old Testament (OT) God tells Abraham to kill his son, you know, as a sign of good faith, it’s hard not to imagine God snickering a bit when he stops the murderously devout Abe just short of making Isaac-kabobs: Haw! you should see the look on your face, it’s priceless! You were totally going to incinerate your kid. Now hack off a bit of his penis. Seriously. No, look, this is my serious face. That dialog was lost, sadly, it would have made the OT a whole lot more fun and more coherent.
Made in His photoshopped image
The lack of humor is stark considering how human the God featured in most major religions is in almost all other ways. The Abrahamic God (the God of the Christians, Muslims, and Jews) is obsessed with sex, calls himself “jealousy” Gin Blossoms-style, doles out civic rules and laws, and appeals to senses of authority, justice, purity, and vengeance. Like so many a man, God eventually knocks a chick up then gets out of town, leaving her to raise his kid. Maryment is okay, but merriment is not. God is never fun. He doesn’t dance, sing, or do anything for joy, assuming he didn’t go genocidal for the laughs. Conversely, humans universally love a good joke, and that isn’t new. The first recorded joke is from 1900 BCE. Why are humans and God so very different in this one way? Another problem is that religion is often said to have inspired creative people, but isn’t comedy a pure form of creativity?
Let’s get re-arted in here
Christians often note that some of the greatest artistic and even scientific accomplishments were inspired by religion. There is much evidence to support the claim: The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, about 10,000 stunning middle ages to early modern paintings in the Louvre, and architectural wonders like the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Parthenon. But wait, there’s more! God also inspired some of the world’s best pre-guitar music such as Handel’s Messiah. Most classical music in general is said to be heavily influenced if not inspired by Christianity, except of course for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Insatiable Whores (later renamed to …Bumblebee). Religionists claim, too, scientists like Galileo and Isaac Newton. Like the contemporary geneticist Francis Collins, Galileo and Newton both explicitly stated they considered their work the investigation of God’s laws. Brilliant novelists like Fyodor Dostoevsky and John Updike also get their creative credits partially stolen by Christianity.
All of these points are debatable. Still, let us take the theist at their word, just for the sake of argument. God has inspired the creativity of composers, lyricists, singers, scientists, writers, and architects. That’s a pretty diverse group, united only along the creative axis. Humor is mere cleverness in written and spoken word. The first objection may be that God and religion are inherently serious matters, concerned with moral turpitude and the destination of souls. Why then, give humanity a sense of humor at all? Presumably either because we are “in His image” or because we’re supposed to laugh at times. Is humor like the other things God gave man while telling him never to use? For example, lust (impure thoughts about not-your-spouse), or reason (please hold your questions until the end of your life, thankyou).
The problem with this is that humor is content-agnostic. A joke’s hook or punchline can be anything. That means it can be pro-god and pro-religion or anti-atheism like this old canard: Q: What do you call an atheist at his funeral? A: All dressed up and no place to go. A joke can have a positive religious message and even be funny, when delivered by ranting, cursing comic nutjob Sam Kinison:
Jesus hasn’t bothered to come back yet that shouldn’t discourage us huh? What’s it been, 2000 years? Come on, let’s stay optimistic, what do you say? No I’m sure it couldn’t have anything to do with that fucking going away party we gave the guy huh? I’m sure that didn’t hurt his feelings at all. Shit, we’re going “Ohh you’re coming back soon eh Jesus? Want us to hold your room?” [mocks nailing someone to a cross with a hammer]. It’s true, come on we were so mean to the guy. Cause we haven’t changed. have we really changed? Jesus came back we’d crucify him again, except this time we’d use an air hammer. [mocks nailing someone to a cross with an air hammer]. […] ” They’re up there in heaven now going “Jesus, why don’t you go back to earth, make the world happy again and be a symbol of peace and love.” He’s going “Yeah…” [looking at hand] “Yeah… sure. No I’ll go back. Yeah I’ll go back as soon as I can play the fucking Piano again! Thanks a lot, I like being the only saviour who can use his hand as a fucking whistle. (video: SK on Jesus)
Or a religious joke can have no particular target:
A local priest and pastor stood by the side of the road holding up a sign that said, “The End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it’s too late!”
They planned to hold up the sign to each passing car.
“Leave us alone you religious nuts!” yelled the first driver as he sped by.
From around the curve they heard a big splash. “Do you think,” said one clergy to the other, “we should just put up a sign that says ‘bridge out’ instead?” source
If humor can be pro-God just as easily as not, why so little godly humor? If religion is so inspirational to creative people why are there so few religious comedians? These are two separate questions and I ask them both: why so little good religious humor and secondly why so few comics talented and devout who riff about any topic? I submit there are vanishingly few humorists counted as both devout and successful. The scope of the rift between the team God and hilarity is immense and needs a closer look.
Laughing with the Sinners
Almost all of the top-tier funny people, books, movies, TV shows, etc.., one can think of are not religious or are produced by the none-too-religious. Note, I don’t mean they are atheists. Some are. Some are probably deists, others likely hold some sort of belief in God, but almost none can be called pious. None here mentioned are averse to skewering religious pomp, as the devout would be. For these, religion is a token at best. A box checked on a survey. You know most of these people and products, but take a look at just how many there are, and how much of the comedy world they produce(d). Let’s start with stand-up and professional comedians.
George Carlin Jesus was a cross dresser.
Lenny Bruce If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.
Bill Hicks The whole image is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love. That’s the message we’re brought up with, isn’t it? Believe or die! Thank you, forgiving Lord, for all those options.
Tim Minchin ♫And yes, I have all of the usual objections ♪ To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion ♫ To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian
Billy Connolly [Video – Connolly on Religion]
Jon Stewart Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart… by religion.
Sarah Silverman [video – Sex with God]
Patton Oswalt [video – Skycake]
Rodney Dangerfield (responding to Howard Stern re: life after death) We’re apes––do apes go anyplace?
Denis Leary I can’t bring up my kids in a church whose authority system is entirely based on the size of fucking hats, okay? That’s apparently how the Catholic church is run.
Eddie Izzard The Crusades were, “We kill you in the name of Jesus!” “Wait, we have Jesus, too! He’s a prophet in our religion!” “… Really? Look, we’ve come all this way. Would you mind awfully if we hacked you to bits? Just for the press back home.”
Kathy Griffin Suck it, Jesus! This award is my God now! (said while accepting Emmy award)
Steven Wright If god dropped acid would he see people?
Ricky Gervais When confronted with anyone who holds my lack of religious faith in such contempt, I say, “It’s the way God made me.”
Penn & Teller […] anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence -Penn Jillette on NPR
Richard Pryor The reason people use a crucifix against vampires is that vampires are allergic to bullshit.
Amy Sedaris We were raised Greek Orthodox […] but I don’t practice it and I couldn’t tell you anything about the Greek religion itself.
Seinfeld: Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Larry David
Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show: Seth MacFarlane
House MD: Hugh Laurie
The Simpsons/Futurama: Matt Groening
South Park: Trey Parker & Matt Stone
Moral Orel: Dino Stamatopoulos
The Man Show, Loveline, Crank Yankers: Adam Carolla et al
This list is far from comprehensive, but even so, quite impressive for team godless. Then there’s this-
God’s mistakes: Awful religious failures
Jeff Dunham and Tyler Perry
I’m not trying to single out racism-based comedy (because it can be funny, see Sarah Silverman, Richard Pryor, Lewis Black, and Dave Chapelle), but both Dunham and Perry have made it their life’s work to cash in on racial humor. This is less forgivable for Dunham and his transparent xenophobia. I still might not care (as a comedy purist) if only they were funny.
Dave Chapelle, Muslim; Sacha Baron Cohen, Jew; Stephen Colbert, Catholic; Sam Kinison, Pentecostal preacher. Bill Cosby; Conan O’Brien, Catholic.
Admittedly, these guys mostly keep their religious views private (which perhaps is in itself curious- why all of them?). So, I do not know how religious they are. I only know they identify as such and appear to practice said faith. I include them in this post for balance. There are exceptions, but it seems, not many.
Bonfire of the Inanities
Fueling the great irony bonfire, atheists are often called joyless, angry and strident. How can the joyless people be largely responsible for, and responsive to, the lion’s share of the greatest comedians alive and in history? It isn’t just the professionals who are unchurched. The regular nonbelievers seem to possess a demographically superior sense of humor. All of this is in spite of the fact of getting the short end of the cultural stick of ages of oppression and marginalization. Atheists should be angry at the society that has excluded them from high office and moral regard, and they are. But they’re good humored, too. Here are the top 10 links at social news outlet Reddit.com‘s atheism subreddit (collected right now, as I write this):
What’s Funny? Damned… if you know.
Maybe not having dogma invites you to take everything, yourself included, less seriously. Maybe religion, with its desperate insecurity, its inviolable demand for unmerited reverence, has made itself into the ring leader of a flea circus. That is, comedy fuel nonpareil. Comedy often feeds on dignity, consumes it. The dignity of religion might be like the Wizard of Oz’s curtain; once it gets pulled back and everyone sees the man pulling the levers, they’re mighty reluctant to get on their knees again. Maybe my question gets the causality backward: good jokes might kill the reverence that is critical to sustaining religion, even without anyone realizing that is what has happened. Maybe people marginalized in a society use laughter as a coping mechanism, channeling their frustrations into jokes and laughter.
Maybe it’s all of those things. I don’t know. I do know God ain’t funny. The idea that there’s an ultrapowered spirit who can make galaxies but not giggles? Now that is funny